If Wes Anderson were a country, he would border on art, the fantastical, nostalgia, whimsy and kitsch.
His new movie, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is set in an imaginary country that the film's star, Ralph Fiennes, calls “Wes' early 20th century middle Europe period.”
It is the comic story of a overly mannered concierge named Gustave H. (Fiennes), who nevertheless charms his clientele, especially rich old ladies. The hotel is pastiche that could only exist in the filmmaker's imagination and set in the fictional mountainous European country of Zubrowka.
The 44-year-old filmmaker of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Moonrise Kingdom” says he was inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, an early 20th century Austrian writer.
A friend of Sigmund Freud and playwright Arthur Schnitzler, the prolific Zweig is little known today, but in the 1920s, he was one of the most translated writers in the world and some of his works like “Letter from an Unknown Woman” were turned into films.
Something of a dandy in his time, Zweig despaired over what he saw as the rising devotion to sports and neglect of art contributing to Europe's growing militarism during the first part of the 20th century. He was a pacifist during World War I, and after that he declared he wanted to be a moral authority in the world and yearned for a more open Europe — one of less restrictive borders. The rise of Nazism, however, forced him into exile, and eventually he and his wife committed suicide in 1942 in Brazil, apparently in despair about World War II.
“The thing that really grabbed me about his writings was his description of Vienna and Europe before 1914,” Anderson says. Zweig's autobiography was titled the “The World of Yesterday.” “It may be an idealized memory of a world where the rock stars of the time were poets, playwrights and composers, but then it was also about the way this world was obliterated in front of him.”
Anderson, a Texas native, says Zweig's was the world he wanted to work in when he and Hugo Guinness conceived of the story for “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which — while addressing Zweig's concerns — is filled with Anderson's particular brand of quirky humor.
“So even though we invented our own little country and our own little version of the history of that region,” Anderson says, “we knew what we are referring to and what the real history was.”
As Anderson — who wrote the script — grew more familiar with Zweig as a personality, the writer he became was something of a model for the fussy Gustave H., and he thought that only one man could play the role: Fiennes, whom the filmmaker had wanted to work with for some time.
“I could tell it was a hard part and it needed somebody who could take on large amounts of text and dialogue and recite poetry and still make him a real person,” he says. “So it was sort of automatic that I would try to get Ralph to do it. The role was really written with him in mind.”
Fiennes, in turn, praises the fantastic design and atmosphere in the film, which was shot on a set in GÃ¶rlitz, Germany.
Anderson's movies always live within their own fanciful logic — even those set in modern times. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” starts with a neat little trick involving multiple narrators (Tom Wilkinson, Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham) each taking up the story, drawing the audience into the film's fictional past. At one point, Anderson shows an old picture postcard of the fictional hotel before slipping into live action.
“One of the inspirations and tools we used for figuring out the setting of our story was that I accidentally stumbled across part of the U.S. Library of Congress website that is called their photochrom collection,” Anderson explains.
“It's a very, very large archive of these postcard images that were made around the turn of the 20th century,” he says. “They are black-and-white photographs that are colorized and then were mass-produced and sold.” The filmmaker compares it to a Google Earth of 1905. “You can travel all around the world looking at these old landscapes and cityscapes, which are very beautiful and fascinating images.”
Paintings also play an important part in the film, both visually and in the plot, where a number of characters pursue a valuable work once owned by a wealthy dowager and “friend” of Gustave's named Madame D., played by Tilda Swinton (in extremely heavy makeup).
Anderson says the works of Caspar David Friedrich contributed to the look of the film. “Many of his paintings have this swirling dramatic view with someone or several people with their backs to the viewer, looking at the landscape.” Indeed, the German Romanticist's most famous work is “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (1818), which shows the back of a young man standing upon a rocky precipice with mist-enveloped hills before him. The painting evokes a mood of both the romance of mystery and an ominous unknown. Even as it careens through its sometimes madcap comedy, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” has something of the same feeling.
Besides Fiennes and Swinton, Anderson has gathered a number of top-flight actors for the project, as usual, and many of them — Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman — are alums of a number of his films.
“A tightly knit group,” he calls the cast, which also includes Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody and Jeff Goldblum.
“It was a very good close collaboration among everybody,” Anderson says.
A few new faces have joined team Anderson. In his first featured role, 17-year-old Tony Revolori plays Zero, a lobby boy whom Gustave takes under his wing, and 19-year-old Saoirse Ronan as his pastry-making girlfriend. Gustave, however, prefers much older women, like the octogenarian Madame D.
The filmmaker says he originally hoped to have the more age-appropriate Angela Lansbury for the role, but scheduling prevented it. So he turned to Swinton, whom he admired, although she is decades younger than the character.
“It was very exciting to see her tackle it,” Anderson says. “She brought something more into it. She brought her own grandmother into the character.”
“He's quiet, but it belies a ferocious determination to get what he's got in his head and he won't let up,” Fiennes says. “He does a lot of takes, which I love, and he squeezes it dry in the best way. Every possible version of a scene is done or tried.”
Some critics will see Gustave H. as something of a stand-in for the filmmaker, a man yearning for a more civil time and place. And he may be more like the figure in Friedrich's painting, looking out at an uncertainty we've seen before. Not that Anderson intends “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which opens in limited release today, as a message film.
“Zweig saw how nationalism and putting barriers between people and categorizing them led to war,” Anderson says. “We're well past the point that any of these are new ideas, but certainly all the stuff that led to his decision that he could not go on, we see a continuation of today. Look at those images from the Ukraine.”